Would Ranked-Choice Voting Have Changed American History?

The 1860 and 2000 elections provide examples of how ranked-choice voting could have affected who ended up in the White House.

The four candidates from the 1860 presidential election: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Breckenridge, and John Bell (Library of Congress)

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The recent introduction of ranked-choice voting in some states has many Americans wondering how it will influence the outcome of future elections.

Currently, Alaska and Maine use ranked-choice voting in their primary, congressional, and presidential elections. It is also the electoral method in 20 cities, including Oakland, Minneapolis, and New York.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. The votes for the candidate who comes in last place are distributed to the other candidates, based on the second choices of the losing candidate’s voters. Say candidate A got 100 votes, candidate B got 80 votes, and candidate C got 50 votes. If the second choice for all 50 people who voted for candidate C was candidate B, all 50 of C’s votes would go to B. Candidate B now has 130 votes to candidate A’s 100 votes, and candidate B would win the election.

Ranked-choice voting would have no effect on elections with just two major candidates, or where third-party candidates gather too few ballots to make a difference. But what about elections with many candidates, or elections where the third-party candidate carries a significant percentage of the votes? Could ranked-choice voting change the outcome of a presidential race, where one candidate would gain enough votes from a third-party candidate to unexpectedly reach a 51 percent majority?

One of the elections that might have been changed by ranked-choice voting was the 2000 presidential election. It’s highly likely that most of the voters who cast a ballot for Ralph Nader would have made Al Gore their second choice. If all of Nader’s Florida votes listed Gore as a second choice, he would have gained 97,488 votes, bringing his total from 2,912,253 to over three million. This would have beaten George Bush’s 2,912,790 votes, winning Florida’s 25 electoral votes and, hence, the presidency.

In most of America’s presidential elections, ranked-choice voting would have made no difference. Third-party candidates had too little backing to affect the outcome. Or else all the second-place votes would have most likely gone to the leading candidate.

For example, James Baird Weaver of the Greenback Party received 308,000 votes in the 1880 presidential election. These would have probably gone to Republican James Garfield who, like Weaver and other prohibitionists, was a strong supporter of Black Americans’ rights. But Garfield was already well ahead in the electoral college; he’d received 214 electoral votes, compared to Democrat Winfield Hancock’s 155 electoral votes.

The election of 1860 was a more complicated matter. The Democratic Party had split during its convention when southern members felt the party wasn’t sufficiently supportive of slaveowners’ rights. The main bloc of Democrats nominated Stephen A. Douglas, while a southern Democratic faction nominated Kentuckian John C. Breckenridge.

Meanwhile, a Constitutional Union Party had emerged. Composed mostly of southerners, it supported the Constitutional right to own slaves but opposed any talk of secession. Southerner John Bell was its candidate.

And Abraham Lincoln was the choice of the young Republican party.

On November 6, the votes were cast in this order:

  • Abraham Lincoln: 39.8 percent of the vote, winning 18 states with his 180 electoral votes
  • Stephen A. Douglas: 29.5 percent of the vote, 1 state, 12 electoral votes
  • John C. Breckenridge: 18.1 percent of the vote, 11 states, 72 electoral votes
  • John Bell: 12.6 percent of the vote, 3 states, 39 electoral votes

If ranked-choice voting had been used in all states, last-place candidate John Bell would have his supporters’ second choice votes divided among Lincoln, Douglas, and Breckenridge.

Bell enjoyed strong support in the border states, where residents were divided on the slavery issue. He had campaigned mostly on avoiding civil war. Lincoln had worked to build support in Kentucky and Tennessee, and probably would have been the second choice of many of Bell’s voters. But other Bell supporters would have feared Lincoln for his past remarks about the evils of slavery, and would have given Douglas or Breckenridge their support.

If his votes would have been divided equally among the three candidates, the vote would have stood as follows:

  • Lincoln: 44 percent of the vote, 18 states, 180 electoral votes (no change in electoral votes)
  • Douglas: 33.7 percent, 1 state, 12 electoral votes (no change in electoral votes)
  • Breckenridge: 22.3 percent, 14 states, 101 electoral votes (+3 states, +29 electoral votes)

At this point, Breckenridge would have been well ahead of Douglas in electoral votes (101 to 12) but ranked-choice voting would only look at the popular vote, and Breckenridge’s 22.2 percent would have put him in last place. His voters’ second-choice votes would have been given to Lincoln or Douglas.

Breckenridge supporters disagreed with Douglas on matters of slave policy, but Douglas agreed to their right to own slaves. And he was still a Democrat. Lincoln, on the other hand, had repeatedly questioned the rights of slave holders. So a large majority of Breckenridge’s votes would have likely gone to Douglas, and almost none to Lincoln. Douglas’s 37 percent would have been increased by Breckenridge’s 22 percent, earning him the majority of the popular vote.

However, as Will Mantell of FairVote.org has pointed out, presidential elections are decided by electoral and not popular vote. Lincoln’s 180 electoral votes could never have been overtaken by the counts from his three opponents.

While hypothetical ranked-choice voting wouldn’t have affected the general election, it had an actual impact on Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate. Lincoln had been a long-shot to win the nomination. But delegates kept voting for presidential contenders until one had gained the majority of support — a system, Mantell notes, similar to ranked-choice voting. Had Republicans chosen their candidate by plurality alone, William Seward would have been the Republicans’ candidate. And Seward was perceived as a radical abolitionist by southerners, a man who’d said there was “a higher law” than the Constitution.

Would Seward have won the general election, or would he have been overtaken by one of his Democratic opponents? Regardless of the winner, the country would look very different today in the absence of a Lincoln presidency.

Editor’s Note: This article was modified on September 20, 2022, based on additional information provided by FairVote.org.

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